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‘The Vietnam War’ “Episode 5 - This Is What We Do (July 1967-December 1967)”
September 21, 2017  | By Alex Strachan  | 2 comments
 

Six months.

“This is war,” former Marine Roger Harris says in the opening moments of tonight’s installment of The Vietnam War.  “Soldiers adapt. Killing, dying, after a while it doesn’t bother you. . . . I was made to realize this is war, this what we do. That stuck in my mind. This is war, this is what we do. After a while, you embrace that.”

“This Is What We Do,” the fifth segment of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s generation-defining documentary series The Vietnam War, takes in a six-month period between July 1967 and December.

Six months.

That number is telling, because on every night so far The Vietnam War’s harrowing chapters have taken in several years at a time. In 1967, in the six months between July and December, everything changed.

At the time the previous chapter, "Resolve," began, in January 1966, 2,400 American soldiers had died in Vietnam.

When “This Is What We Do” opens, just 18 months later, that number has ballooned to 14,624 — 75,000 American casualties in all — and the carnage is just beginning.

“Off the record,” narrator Peter Coyote tells viewers, in those first moments, “officers were less sanguine than their commanders.”

Victory is not close at hand. “In fact,” one commander-in-the-know says, “it may be beyond reach.”

Pacification, winning the hearts and minds of the South Vietnamese people, is not working. Saigon still controls only a fraction of a country roughly the size of Florida, and its government, riddled with corruption, is as unpopular as ever.

Back home, President Lyndon Johnson has been forced to raise taxes, to meet the war’s ever-climbing cost, and his ambitious social program, “the war on poverty” — sound familiar? — is in retreat.

History teaches us that the “long, hot summer of 1967,” as it would be known, was when racial unrest would grip American cities.

And it’s at this point — for the first time in The Vietnam War’s seven hours so far — it’s only natural to draw parallels between then and now.

One of the truly wondrous things about Burns and Novick’s Vietnam War is both its exquisite timing — it has landed in the American consciousness at precisely the right moment in US political history — and yet Burns and Novick consciously avoid any obvious comparisons. That would be crass, gauche, and heavy-handed, not to mention obvious. Call Burns what you will, but he is not obvious.

Besides, drawing a line between Vietnam and America in 1967 and the US in 2017 would give the viewer too little credit. Throughout his entire filmmaking career, Burns has been about giving the viewer credit for intelligence, the ability to think on one’s own and draw one’s own conclusions. (Fun fact: Burns has been interviewed in the past, in the same week, by left-leaning rabble-rouser Bill Maher and right-leaning rabble-rouser Dennis Miller, and both treated him with respect and dignity. Burns, the historian, must be doing something right.)

The Vietnam War has received much praise from critics, and deservedly so. Few of those reviews, though, have focused on what Burns and Novick have chosen not to say.

This is the way it was, Burns and Novick seem to be saying, to paraphrase newsman Walter Cronkite’s iconic tagline, “That’s the way it is.”

Now, they’re telling the viewer: Find your own parallels. Make your own comparisons. Draw your own conclusions.

“This Is What We Do” throws an early spotlight on the growing racial tensions in the US homeland, the growing civil rights movement and growing anger about how the Vietnam War was being fought largely by working-class, uneducated 18- and 19-year-olds, many of them from Latino and black backgrounds.

It was the wealthy, well-to-do, predominantly white classes who won deferments. It was only a matter of time before inequality, social injustice and the simmering racial tensions that were always there beneath the surface boiled into the open. The war became two wars: the war in-country, in Vietnam itself, and the war back-in-the-world, when 159 race riots broke out across a range of cities, from Atlanta, Boston and Buffalo to Newark, New York and Tampa.

In Vietnam itself, none of that mattered. For the moment. Soldiers on the ground were living in the moment, praying against hope they would live to see the next moment.

In the film, ex-Marine Roger Harris, an African-American, recalls growing up in Roxbury, the heart of black culture in Boston, and recalls the racial tensions between Roxbury and South Boston, the city’s bastion of predominantly white Irish-Catholics.

Vietnam would throw many of them together.

“The Vietnamese didn’t care whether you were from Roxbury or South Boston,” Harris recalls quietly in the film. “They saw you as American. And they wanted to kill you because you were American.”

It was a crazy time. The government of South Vietnam staged a snap election — what a time for an election! — for president, vice-president, the general assembly and a new constitution. That was a lot to take on in a single election; it didn't help that the election followed little more than a year after the last election. The already shaky government in South Vietnam threatened to come apart at the seams all over again.

US ambassador Ellsworth Bunker and his president, Lyndon B. Johnson, were fed up. Ellsworth told the rival candidates that. “The United States will not tolerate another power struggle,” he warned them, but words often have little meaning when wheels are already set in motion.

“(It) was like we were watching a movie,” Vietnamese Phan-Quang Tue recalls in the film. It seemed scarcely real.

The Vietnam War is all too real, never more so than in “This Is What We Do.”

Halfway through the program, there are early indicators of war crimes — on both sides. War crimes would prove to be an issue that would galvanize anti-war protestors, and drive the fissures in society back home even wider.

There’s a solemn, soft-spoken admission from ex-Marine Karl Marlantes, toward the end of the night’s program, that one of the things he learned in the war is that we’re not the top species on the planet because we’re nice.

“We’re a very aggressive species,” Marlantes says. “It is in us. People talk a lot about how well the military turns kids into killing machines. I always argue that it’s just finishing school.”

Anthropologists may argue that point.

Listening to Marlantes, though, I was reminded that one of the most telling and under-reported discoveries by primatologist Jane Goodall, in her landmark studies of chimpanzees in the wild, is that groups of wild chimps will, on occasion, band together, brandish tools and invade neighboring chimpanzee territories, killing at will.

It is, Goodall has said, as close to war as she has ever witnessed from apes in the wild.

We may be the top species on the planet, as Marlantes says, but those primal instincts are never far away.

They’re there, lying just beneath the surface veneer of civilization.

That is just one of the many, meaningful lessons of The Vietnam War, intended or unintended.

It’s why The Vietnam War is already looking like one of the most important, lasting documentary films ever made.

 

TV Worth Watching will preview Episode 6: Things Fall Apart (January 1968-July1968) on Sunday, Sept. 24. The Vietnam War airs Sunday through Thursday on PBS at 8 p.m. ET through Sept. 28 (check local listings).

 
 
 
 
 
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2 Comments
 
 
deSitter
There were no riots in Atlanta. I grew up there in the 60s. No riots, none. Not even a dumpster fire. We had a Jewish mayor and then a black one. Atlanta is one of the few places in the entire country that is essentially without hate and where people get along.
Sep 27, 2017   |  Reply
 
 
Larry Allen
Would like to visit with Roger Harris, I served in the Navy from 69-75 and Roger tells the story best. I write and speak for Veterans and Memorial Day and I want to tell Rogers story.
Sep 23, 2017   |  Reply
 
 
 
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